By Clarissa Sebag-Montefiore
SYDNEY, Australia — The Australian actor Geoffrey Rush won his defamation case on Thursday against the parent company of a newspaper that published articles accusing him of sexual harassment.
The two front-page articles were published in late 2017 by The Daily Telegraph, a tabloid newspaper in Sydney owned by Rupert Murdoch’s Nationwide News. They said that during a Sydney Theater Company production of “King Lear” from November 2015 to January 2016, Mr. Rush, 67, acted inappropriately toward a female co-star.
Speaking to a packed room in Sydney, Justice Michael Wigney of the Federal Court of Australia said that The Telegraph had not proved that the articles were substantially true as required by Australian defamation law. He awarded 850,000 Australian dollars, or $608,000, in initial damages to Mr. Rush, with damages for the actor’s economic losses to be determined later.
“This is a sad and unfortunate case,” Justice Wigney said at the beginning of the verdict, adding that the accusations should have been “dealt with in a different way and in a different place to the harsh adversarial world of a defamation proceeding.”
There was no immediate comment from Mr. Rush, The Telegraph or Nationwide News.
One of the articles was illustrated by a photograph of a haunted-looking Mr. Rush in character as King Lear, accompanied by the headline “King Leer.” The case became a moment of reckoning for both the entertainment industry and the #MeToo movement in Australia.
Mr. Rush argued during the trial that the articles wrongly portrayed him as a “sexual predator” and a “pervert.” The case rested largely on his word against that of the actress he was accused of harassing, who after the publication of the articles was identified as Eryn Jean Norvill.
Ms. Norvill, who is in her mid-30s, testified in court last year that Mr. Rush had acted inappropriately during rehearsals for “King Lear,” in which she played his daughter Cordelia. Among the allegations, she said that Mr. Rush had made “groping” and “cupping” gestures toward her breasts.
During one scene in a preview performance, Ms. Norvill said, Mr. Rush “deliberately” stroked her breast in front of the audience. At another point, she said, he traced her lower back along the waistline of her jeans with his fingertips.
Ms. Norvill said she had not formally complained at the time because as a junior member of the cast, she was intimidated by the power of Mr. Rush, an Oscar winner who has earned millions for “Pirates of the Caribbean” and other films. Other members of the “King Lear” production were “complicit” in turning a blind eye, Ms. Norvill said.
Justice Wigney said Ms. Norvill, who was not interviewed for the Telegraph articles, had no vested interest in the case and was “dragged into the spotlight by the actions of Nationwide News” and the author of the articles, Jonathon Moran.
But he also said Ms. Norvill’s testimony was “at times prone to exaggeration and embellishment,” saying her account was “inconsistent” and “directly contradicted” by other witnesses, including Neil Armfield, the Australian director of the play.
“I was not ultimately persuaded that Ms. Norvill was an entirely credible witness or that her evidence about the allegations was reliable,” Justice Wigney said.
He called the Telegraph articles “a recklessly irresponsible piece of sensationalist journalism of the very worst kind.”
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